The blogger Digby popularized the use of the phrase "The Village" to describe Washington media elites. The mocking nickname was inspired by a 1998 Washington Post article by Sally Quinn about Washington's reaction to the Lewinsky scandal. Quinn quoted David Broder saying of Clinton's effect on Washington: "He came in here and he trashed the place ... and it's not his place." And: "The judgment is harsher in Washington. We don't like being lied to." Others -- journalists like David Gergen and Chris Matthews alongside politicians like Joe Lieberman -- echoed the sentiment that The Village just couldn't tolerate Clinton's lies.
It was all bunk, of course. The Village hated -- and, it must be noted, lied about -- the Clintons long before anyone, Bill Clinton included, had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky. And needless to say, other politicians have both had extramarital sex and told lies without drawing The Village's scorn.
So it's laugh-out-loud funny to suggest that Washington -- specifically, the newsrooms of Washington -- is filled with journalists of such reverence for the truth and honesty that they simply could not accept someone who told a lie. It certainly never manifested itself during the Bush administration -- Broder, for one, famously suggested that Clinton should have resigned because "he may well have lied" but repeatedly refused invitations to say the same about Bush.
But wouldn't it be nice if The Village really was as opposed to lying as Broder claimed? More specifically, if the media elite who serve as Village elders had the good sense to shun their colleagues who habitually misinform, that could go a long way toward reversing the decades-long erosion of public confidence in the news media.
Take, for example, George Will. Will recently used his syndicated Washington Post column to make several false claims about global warming -- something he has done frequently in the past. Will's column sparked widespread condemnation, but the Post refused to run a correction and insisted that it has a "multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible."
That has led to suggestions that the Post might want to consider adding another layer or two, or redefine what they consider "possible." Certainly, the Post could do a better job of keeping falsehoods out of your morning newspaper. But the basic problem here wasn't that the Post had an insufficient number of layers in its editing process; it's that the Post publishes George Will at all.
See, Will may have a reputation as an honest, intellectual conservative, but he has a long history of dishonest hackery, conflicts of interest, and double standards.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, for example, Will secretly helped coach Ronald Reagan for a debate, using a briefing book stolen from Jimmy Carter's campaign. After the debate, Will appeared on ABC's Nightline, where he praised Reagan's performance without disclosing his role in prepping the candidate. In 1996, Will defended a speech by GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole without noting that his wife, a top Dole aide, had helped write it.
During the 1988 presidential campaign, Will treated Jesse Jackson quite differently, ambushing him with an arcane question about "the G-7 measures of the Louvre Accords" -- a question interpreted by many as an effort to do little more than embarrass Jackson and compared by some to the literacy tests used to disenfranchise African-American voters until they were banned in the 1960s.
Whatever the reason for Will's treatment of Jackson, he behaved far differently toward George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he penned a Washington Post column about Bush titled "He's No Intellectual -- And So What?" During that campaign, Will met privately with Bush shortly before the candidate appeared on ABC's This Week. Why? To go over a question in advance so he didn't "ambush" Bush with "unfamiliar material." Will even went so far as to give Bush an index card containing a portion of the question he would ask.
You might think a journalist -- particularly one who had previously been busted praising the debate performance of a candidate he had secretly helped coach -- would be embarrassed to admit that he had given a presidential candidate a question ahead of time. Not George Will: he bragged about it in his Post column.
Of course, Will is hardly the first columnist to take sides in elections. Nor is he the first to lend a bit of assistance to his favored candidate, though few have been as audacious as Will in doing so. Still, Will's efforts on behalf of Republican candidates -- though sometimes ethically questionable -- aren't the primary reason he doesn't deserve his place on the Post's op-ed pages. His greater sin, as a columnist, is the frequency with which he makes false claims.
Will's pattern of global warming falsehoods has been well-documented in recent days. It's a pattern that goes back at least 16 years:
Will confronted Gore on the issue of global warming: "Gore knows, or should know before pontificating, that a recent Gallup Poll of scientists concerned with global climate research shows that 53 percent do not believe warming has occurred, and another 30 percent are uncertain."
It was Will, however, who should have read the poll more carefully "before pontificating." Gallup actually reported that 66 percent of the scientists said that human-induced global warming was occurring, with only 10 percent disagreeing and the rest undecided. Gallup took the unusual step of issuing a written correction to Will's column (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92): "Most scientists involved in research in this area believe that human-induced global warming is occurring now." Will never noted the error in his column.
That aversion to corrections -- if not to making false claims -- seems to be another pattern with Will. Jonathan Schwarz dug up the following story from Noam Chomsky's book Understanding Power:
[A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called "Mideast Truth and Falsehood," ... he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter ...in which I said, "Will has one statement of fact, it's false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down." Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek "Letters" column. She said: "We're kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?" So I told her, "Well, they're published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971" ... So she looked it up and called me back, and said, "Yeah, you're right, we found it there; okay, we'll run your letter." An hour later she called again and said, "Gee, I'm sorry, but we can't run the letter." I said, "What's the problem?" She said, "Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he's having a tantrum; they decided they can't run it." Well, okay.
In more recent years, Will has made false claims about the Voting Rights Act and the New Deal. He made a claim about China drilling off the coast of Florida that was so wrong, even then-Vice President Cheney -- who cited Will in repeating the claim -- acknowledged it wasn't true. When even Dick Cheney thinks you've gone too far in spouting pro-drilling falsehoods, you have a problem. But neither Will nor the Post corrected the error.
Last year, Will claimed in his Newsweek column and on ABC that Social Security taxes are levied based on household income. Not true. He claimed that McCain won more votes from independents during the primaries than Obama did. Wrong. He claimed most minimum-wage earners are students or part-time employees. False. Will has even lied about Hillary Clinton's Yankees fandom.
Basically, George Will routinely makes false claims large and small, holds politicians to disparate standards, and engages in ethically dubious conduct on behalf of his preferred candidates. The Washington Post can hide behind multi-layer processes all it wants, but as long as it publishes Will, it will continue to misinform its readers. The Post doesn't need to give Will a better fact-checker; it -- along with the rest of the media elite -- should instead give him a good, thorough shunning.
Instead, he remains a respected citizen of The Village -- the same Village where, David Broder insists, people just don't like being lied to.